Ukraine pledges sweeping personnel changes as allies jostle over tanks
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said personnel changes were being carried out at senior and lower levels, a move that follows the most high-profile graft allegations since Russia's invasion nearly a year ago.
Ukraine has a long history of corruption and shaky governance.
On Sunday, anti-corruption police said they had detained the deputy infrastructure minister on suspicion of receiving a $400,000 kickback over the import of generators last September, an allegation the minister denies.
Separately, a newspaper investigation accused the Defence Ministry of overpaying suppliers for soldiers' food. The supplier has said it made a technical mistake and no money had changed hands.
"There are already personnel decisions - some today, some tomorrow - regarding officials at various levels in ministries and other central government structures, as well as in the regions and in law enforcement," Zelenskiy said in his nightly video address on Monday.
His plans include toughening oversight on travelling abroad for official assignments. Several Ukrainian media outlets have reported that cabinet ministers and senior officials could be sacked imminently.
The corruption scandal could dampen Western enthusiasm for his government just as European countries bicker over sending German-made Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine.
One of the most widely used Western tanks, Ukraine says it needs them to break through Russian lines and recapture territory this year.
Ukraine and Russia are both believed to be planning spring offensives to break the deadlock in what has become a war of attrition in eastern and southern Ukraine as the first anniversary of the Russian invasion nears.
Germany, which must approve re-exports of the Leopard, has held back, wary of moves that could cause Moscow to escalate. But under strong pressure from some of its partners, Berlin has said it is willing to act quickly if there is a consensus among allies.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, whose country borders Ukraine, said on Monday that Warsaw would seek permission to send the tanks to Kyiv and was trying to get others on board.
Germany is not blocking the re-export of Leopard tanks to Ukraine, the European Union's top diplomat said on Monday.
U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price at a press briefing on Monday dodged repeated questions about Germany's wariness over the supply of tanks and whether the United States would support other countries supplying Leopards without Germany's approval.
"We may be hearing more from our German allies in the coming hours, in the coming days," he told reporters.
The Kremlin said the splits in Europe over whether to provide tanks to Kyiv showed there was increasing "nervousness" within the NATO military alliance.
'ACTING AGAINST THE WEST'
Following Ukrainian advances in the second half of 2022, front lines have been largely frozen in place for two months, despite heavy losses on both sides.
On Monday, the new general in charge of Russia's military operations in Ukraine used his first public comments to warn that modern Russia had never seen such "intensity of military hostilities", forcing it to carry out offensive operations to stabilise the situation.
"Our country and its armed forces are today acting against the entire collective West," Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov told the news website Argumenty i Fakty in remarks published late on Monday.
Military reforms, announced mid-January, could be adjusted to respond to threats to Russia's security, which include Sweden and Finland's aspirations to join NATO and "the use of Ukraine as a tool for waging a hybrid war against our country," he said.
Russian forces are shelling and attacking Ukrainian positions on the front lines around the clock, Zelenskiy said in his address.
Ukraine says Western tanks would give its ground troops the mobility, protection and firepower to break through Russian defensive lines and resume their advance.
American lawmakers have pressed their government to export M1 Abrams battle tanks to Ukraine, saying even a symbolic number would help push European allies to do the same.
Britain has said it will supply 14 Challenger 2 tanks. French President Emmanuel Macron said he did not rule out the possibility of sending Leclerc tanks.
Moscow sought to apply its own pressure.
"All countries which take part, directly or indirectly, in pumping weapons into Ukraine and in raising its technological level bear responsibility" for continuing the conflict, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
Since its invasion on Feb. 24, 2022, which it has cast as defending itself from an aggressive West, Russia has taken control of parts of Ukraine it says it will never return.
Ukraine has said that restoring its territorial integrity is not open for negotiation.
** S.Africa hails friendship with Russia amid Ukraine war
South Africa said on Monday it was "friends" with Russia, as it hosted Russia's top diplomat for a visit that has sparked criticism against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine.
A continental powerhouse, South Africa has refused to condemn Moscow's invasion of Ukraine and last week announced it will host joint maritime drills with Russia and China in February.
Minister of International Relations Naledi Pandor defended the move on Monday as she welcomed her counterpart Sergei Lavrov for talks in Pretoria.
"All countries conduct military exercises with friends," Pandor told a press conference after the talks.
She thanked Lavrov for the "most wonderful meeting", which she earlier said would have helped "strengthen the already good relations", with what she described as a "valued partner".
South Africa recently assumed the chairmanship of the BRICS, a grouping that also includes Brazil, Russia, India and China to challenge the dominant US and European-led global governance structures.
It has resisted taking sides over the war in Ukraine, that has triggered sweeping Western sanctions against Moscow and attempts to leave it diplomatically isolated.
But the links with Moscow have triggered criticism, with some accusing the government of having abandoned its neutral stance.
- 'Openly siding with Russia' -
"It is becoming increasingly clear that the South African government is openly siding with Russia," said Darren Bergman, a lawmaker with the main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) party.
"Friendly engagement" with Russia was "not appropriate" unless aimed at persuading it to end its involvement in Ukraine, he said.
Lavrov said Moscow appreciated "the independent, well-balanced and considerate approach" taken by Pretoria.
Russia did not "refuse negotiations" with Ukraine, he added.
"But those who refuse must understand that the longer they refuse, the more difficult it is to find a solution," he said.
Officials in Moscow have blamed the closure of diplomatic channels on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has said he will not negotiate while Russian leader Vladimir Putin is in power.
Despite the public overtures, the Kremlin has so far shown little willingness to soften its approach on the ground.
In Pretoria, members of Ukrainian community in South Africa held a small protest against the visit, with some waving signs reading "Go home Lavrov" and "Stop the lies! Stop the war".
More than 350 South African army personnel are to take part in the joint naval exercises scheduled for February 17 to 27, off the port city of Durban and Richards Bay.
Last week, the foundation of late South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, called the planned naval exercises "disgraceful" and "tantamount to a declaration that South Africa is joining the war against Ukraine".
US plans threatened WWIII – ex-Russian president
The US and its allies almost ignited a third world war by preparing to attack Russia, which had no choice but to do something about it, former president Dmitry Medvedev said on Monday. He was addressing the leadership of the ruling United Russia party in Moscow.
“Our party should help the people around the world understand that the ongoing special operation was a forced and last-resort response to preparations for aggression by the US and its satellites,” Medvedev said.
“It is obvious that the world came close to the threat of WWIII because of what was happening,” he added.
Medvedev also described a “serious crisis” at the UN and other international institutions, which were created to resolve international disputes but have been turned into a battlefield by the West instead.
“Our opponents are trying to enlist as many votes as possible in support of their anti-Russian initiatives, using underhanded means such as economic pressure, extortion and political bribery,” Medvedev said, adding that the main mission of Russian diplomacy remained countering this “cynical line” by the West.
Medvedev was president of Russia between 2008 and 2012, after which he became the chairman of the ruling party and prime minister. He stepped down as PM in 2020 to run the national security council.
Though the West considered him a “liberal” during his presidency, Medvedev has been blunt and outspoken about the special military operation in Ukraine since it was launched in February 2022. Just last week, he ridiculed the World Economic Forum in Davos and warned the West that the current conflict is existential in nature for Russia, which should be kept in mind when it comes to nuclear weapons and their possible use.
Russia sent troops into Ukraine in February 2022, citing Kiev’s failure to implement the Minsk agreements, designed to give the regions of Donetsk and Lugansk special status within the Ukrainian state. The protocols, brokered by Germany and France, were first signed in 2014. Former Ukrainian president Pyotr Poroshenko has since admitted that Kiev’s main goal was to use the ceasefire to buy time and “create powerful armed forces.”
The Kremlin recognized the Donbass republics as independent states and demanded that Ukraine officially declare itself a neutral country that will never join any Western military bloc. Kiev insists the Russian offensive was completely unprovoked.
** New Army development plan to guarantee Russia’s sovereignty, Chief of General Staff says
The newly approved Armed Forces development plan will guarantee the protection of the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov said.
"The main goal behind this work is to guarantee our country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and to create conditions for progress in its social and economic development," he said in an interview with the Argumenty i Fakty newspaper published on Tuesday.
Under the plan, approved by the Supreme Commander-in-Chief at an expanded Defense Ministry board meeting, the Moscow and the Leningrad military districts will be created. Also, three motorized rifle divisions will be formed in the Kherson and the Zaporozhye regions, and an army corps will be built in the northwestern region of Karelia, Gerasimov said.
** Russian forces strike over 60 Ukrainian artillery units in past day
Russian combat aircraft, missile troops and artillery struck over 60 Ukrainian artillery units at firing positions in the past day during the special military operation in Ukraine, Defense Ministry Spokesman Lieutenant-General Igor Konashenkov reported on Monday.
"In the past 24 hours, operational-tactical aircraft, missile troops and artillery of the Russian group of forces struck 63 artillery units at firing positions, manpower and military equipment in 97 areas," the spokesman said.
Russian artillery struck amassed manpower of two Ukrainian army brigades in the Kupyansk area, eliminating over 40 militants in the past day, Konashenkov reported.
"In the Kupyansk area, artillery of the Western Military District inflicted damage on amassed manpower of the Ukrainian army’s 14th and 92nd mechanized brigades in areas near the settlements of Dvurechnaya and Berestovoye in the Kharkov Region and Novosyolovskoye in the Lugansk People’s Republic," the spokesman said.
The strikes "destroyed over 40 Ukrainian troops and one motor vehicle," the general said.
The Ukrainian military lost about 70 troops and two radars in the Krasny Liman area as a result of damage inflicted by Russian artillery and paratroopers over the past day, Konashenkov reported.
"In the Krasny Liman area, the fire delivered by artillery of the Central Military District and the Airborne Force inflicted damage on units of the Ukrainian army’s 80th and 95th air assault brigades in the area of the Serebryansky forestry. The enemy’s losses amounted to 70 personnel, four armored fighting vehicles and two US-made AN/TPQ-37 and AN/TPQ-50 counter-battery radars," the spokesman said.
Russian assault units supported by combat aircraft and missile troops liberated the community of Krasnopolye in the Donetsk People’s Republic, Konashenkov reported.
"In the Donetsk area, volunteers of assault teams supported by operational-tactical and army aviation aircraft, missile troops and artillery of the Southern Military District liberated the community of Krasnopolye in the Donetsk People’s Republic," the spokesman said.
Russian forces eliminated over 60 Ukrainian troops, two armored vehicles and two howitzers in the Donetsk area over the past day, Konashenkov reported.
"In the past 24 hours, over 60 servicemen, two armored combat vehicles, three motor vehicles, two howitzers (Msta-B and D-30) and also a US-made AN/TPQ-50 counter battery radar were destroyed in that [Donetsk] area," the spokesman said.
Russian forces eliminated about 30 Ukrainian troops and a Grad rocket system in the Zaporozhye area over the past day, Konashenkov reported.
"In the Zaporozhye area, up to 30 Ukrainian servicemen, three motor vehicles and also a Grad multiple rocket launcher were destroyed as a result of damage inflicted by troops of the Eastern Military District on the Ukrainian army units by combined firepower over the past 24 hours," the spokesman said.
Russian forces struck the deployment site of the Ukrainian army’s 107th artillery brigade in the Dnieper area over the past day, Konashenkov reported.
"In the Dnieper area, a ground-based high-precision weapon hit the temporary deployment site of the 107th rocket artillery brigade in the area of the settlement of Marganets in the Dnepropetrovsk Region," the spokesman said.
Russian forces destroyed a US-made HIMARS multiple launch rocket system together with its crew in the Dnieper area over the past day, Konashenkov reported.
"An American HIMARS multiple launch rocket system was destroyed together with its crew as a result of the strike against an uncovered firing position," the spokesman said.
Russian air defense systems intercepted 14 HIMARS rockets over the past day, Konashenkov reported.
"In the past 24 hours, air defense capabilities shot down three Ukrainian unmanned aerial vehicles in areas near the settlements of Kremennaya in the Lugansk People’s Republic and Zhovtnevoye in the Kharkov Region. They also intercepted 14 rockets of the HIMARS multiple launch rocket system in the areas of the city of Donetsk, the communities of Avdeyevka and Pilipchatino in the Donetsk People’s Republic, and also Chervonopopovka in the Lugansk People’s Republic," the spokesman said.
In all, the Russian Armed Forces have destroyed 376 Ukrainian warplanes, 203 helicopters, 2,934 unmanned aerial vehicles, 401 surface-to-air missile systems, 7,607 tanks and other armored combat vehicles, 987 multiple rocket launchers, 3,893 field artillery guns and mortars and 8,153 special military motor vehicles since the beginning of the special military operation, Konashenkov reported.